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Bring on Peru!!!

A little break from city life!

sunny 23 °C

We said goodbye to our apartment in Bogota and hauled our HUGE bags down the 3 flights of stairs but we weren't quite done with South America yet. After dropping off the bulk of our possessions at the YMCA office, we headed out for Lima, Peru to start our 3 week tour of northern Peru and the Amazon river.

We arrived in Lima and were pleasantly surprised by the city. Its Plaza de Armas (the Plaza Bolivar of Peru, aka every city has one) was colorful and bustling with travelers. Lima's tourist sections are all well connected (contrary to Bogota's layout) and the city is accustomed to having foreigners roam their streets. We adjusted well to vacation, churros filled with caramel off the streets, ceviche from the local cevicheria, seeing the Pacific ocean, and Pisco Sours (the local drink in Peru- basically a margarita made with their own hooch, Pisco).

After checking out the catacombs at the San Francisco Convent, watching the changing of the guard (to the tune of Star Wars, not kidding) and visiting Miraflores- the super-classy-tourist-ridden-almost-too-familiar-starbucks-hosting area of Lima, we hopped on a luxury bus (leather reclining seats and meal service) to head up to Huanchaco, Peru on the north coast.

Huanchaco is a sleepy seaside town just north of Trujillo where some of Peru's most ancient civilizations used to reside before the Inca's took over. The town itself has a Santa Cruz-y vibe and we took advantage of the time to relax, eat some seafood visit Chan Chan, the ruins of the Muchik people, and take surf lessons from the locals!

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By the time we left Huanchaco we had about 2 weeks left in Peru and wanted to get to the Amazon as soon as possible. We had planned to head east through Chachapoyas where we would be able to see some ruins but the locals had other plans for us. The Peruvian government had recently sold off some of the land belonging to the indigenous communities to private enterprises for petroleum exports and they weren't happy about it for obvious reasons. In response the locals had blockaded some of the major highways connecting cities in the northern central highlands (where we were trying to pass through) and the confrontation with local law enforcement had caused about 25 deaths of both indigenous and police officers.

In trying to avoid the conflict we had taken a bus to Cajamarca (along a different highway) but when we arrived after 8 hours we were told there were no buses to Chachapoyas. None. Zilch. Zero. Awesome. After running around to ask every bus company how we could get to Chachapoyas we finally had to give up the dream, it just wasn't in the cards and we changed the plans. The only way to continue east to the Amazon, was to go back to the coast and take a different route to the Amazon. Ugh. Foreseeing quite a few hours on buses, we stayed the night in Cajamarca which turned out to be a wonderful stop.

We woke up the next morning and opened the balcony doors onto the main square where dueling Catholic churches ring their bells, alternating every 1/2 on Sundays to bring in the masses. We spent our Sunday checking out Atalhuapa's holding cell (where Pizarro held the Inca chief hostage and the chief promised to fill it with gold in exchange for his freedom), the natural baths, and eating delicious ice cream made from local fruits (Lucuma won by a landslide) before heading to mass and catching our bus back to the coast.

We weren't able to make it to Chachapoyas and our round-about way to keep going east was to go back west to the coast, spend a day in Chiclayo (where we went on a hunt for an illusive witch market which we nicknamed Diagon Alley and we dissappointed by both the lack of witch-ery and anything else of interest) before hopping on a bus for night #2 sleeping on a bus.

When we woke up after 13 restless hours on what would be our last bus of the trip, we were in Tarapoto. We stepped off the bus and were welcomed by a wall of humidity and heat. It was official, we had made it to the Amazon!

Posted by tuffchix 07:15 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

A Disturbing Tale

Kidnapped at the Ciudad Perdida, as told by our guide Manuel Carabali.

sunny 30 °C

In 2003 Manuel headed out to the Ciudad Perdida with a group of eager trekkers, all foreign. His group of 7 would later grow to 8 as he was unknowingly watched by the hidden guerrilla forces of the ELN (the smaller of the 2 guerrilla groups in Colombia, the 2nd being the FARC. This group was always smaller and less cruel and is now considered more or less defunct). After 3 routine days of hiking with nothing out of the ordinary, the group arrived in Ciudad Perdida and settled in for the night.

Early in the morning Manuel was woken up by a light tapping on his knee. An calm and seemingly undisturbed voice told him he needed to come outside and when Manuel said he would wake up the rest of the group so they could all hear whatever important announcement this person had, Manuel was told it wasn't necessary. Thinking the man's reluctance to awake the rest of the hikers a little strange Manuel went with the man outside. The visitor started to ask Manuel questions with obvious answers, stirring Manuel's discomfort with his presence even more. At that point some of the tourists had woken up and had made their way down from their sleeping platform to see what was going on. As Manuel was peppered with questions, he noticed a few more visitors entering the camp who started going through the trekkers backpacks and demanding that the hikers put on their shoes. Manuel was certain at this point, from both the questions and quickness with which the guerrillas worked, they had been watched during their ascent to the Ciudad Perdida. As Manuel tells us, of his 8 group members 5 were taken as hostages (the others left behind because they were uncooperative or didn't have good shoes to be marched off). Manuel and his guide buddy were tied up and told that if they untied themselves they would be killed when the guerrillas returned later in the afternoon.

The guerrillas then left with their 5 foreign hostages and Manuel and his buddy left alone. They eventually freed themselves and having noticed that the indigenous who usually visited in the morning had not come, went off to their camp to see what had happened. He found all of the indigenous tied up inside one hut, one man strapped to explosives which thankfully never exploded. After untying the indigenous, learning that they had been tied up first so they could not run to warn Manuel and his group Manual set out to look for the other guide and group who had also been at the Ciudad Perdida in a different camp. Later he would learn the guides had run up into the hills at the first signs of trouble and 3 of the other group members had been kidnapped as well. After sending the indigenous off to their nearby friends and relatives, he evacuated the Ciudad Perdida with the shaken and terrified remaining hikers. They headed back down the mountain as fast as they could, some without shoes which had been stolen by the guerrillas to prevent a quick escape. Two days later they all reached Santa Marta, Manuel hadn't slept or eaten and reported everything to the police. After hours of questioning and interrogation the police and military had enough information to start their search.

The combined efforts between the military and paramilitary (historically uncooperative but the military didn't want to risk a run-in with paramilitary groups during their search so decided to solicit their help) to encircle and rescue the hostages was unsuccessful. It wasn't until 5 months later that the hostages had all been released in what as being called a politically motivated kidnapping. Manual learned later that while some were released relatively early for their cooperation with the guerrillas (willingness to teach English to the soldiers for example) others were held for longer becuase of their refusal to speak in Spanish or English.

In the meantime Manuel encountered a fair share of criticism. Everything from accusations of being in cohorts with the guerrillas to aid in the kidnapping to giving incorrect information about the events that occurred and even questioned by the president as to whether there should even be foreigners at the lost city (apparently the president didn't understand what the Ciudad Perdida was or he would never have called that into question). While being interviewed on national television, he was told his facts were wrong- the network had received bad information- and Manuel threatened to stop the interview unless they were willing to report unbiasedly and accurately.

Marty and I had done our research before going on the trek and were well aware of the kidnapping. While hearing it first hand makes you realize your vulnerability in a place like the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, it was not a deterrent. Since the kidnappings, military has been placed all along the path to the Ciudad Perdida and there has not been an incident since. We were in the hands of incredibly knowledgeable and experienced guides and had done our research ahead of time to soothe any fears we had. And when in doubt, its only nature to get a little spooked here and there along a 6 day hike in the middle of a jungle filled with everything from pythons to plantains to panthers, we dutifully recited our motto for our time here in Colombia, "Be smart but not paranoid". Its gotten us this far...

Posted by tuffchix 17:33 Archived in Colombia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Nuckin' Futs!

Otherwise known as the trek to the Ciudad Perdida (Lost City)

sunny 30 °C

We couldn't have been more ready to get out of the city and into the Colombian jungle as we were boarding our plane Saturday April 4th. Bright and early we dragged overstuffed packs down to the awaiting cab, pausing a moment to congratulate ourselves on finally being able to successfully call a cab to the apartment. A small success, but really just the first in a week filled with small triumphs, a couple substantial ones, and a lot of ups and downs. Literally.

We flew into Barranquilla (yes folks, home of Shakira but no sightings to report) and made our way along the coast out to Santa Marta. Our trek to La Ciudad Perdida with Turcol didn't leave until the following morning so we booked a hostel and dropped off our stuff before heading out to explore, drink out of a coconut, soak up the sun and snap some pictures. The next day we met up with our other 11 trekkers at the Turcol office and piled into the back of a Land Cruiser- 13 people do fit back there, however by the end of the week we all wished we could put a little more space in between our own personal 'funk' we had worked up over a week of hiking and no showers, and that of the person next to us. On the way out we all introduced ourselves (3 Bogotanas, 4 Paisas- from Medellin, 1 Samario- native Santa Martan, 1 Italian, 1 Norwegian, 1 Israeli, and 2 Gringos) and found ourselves very lucky to be among a diverse, adventurous, fun and social group; something we wouldn't take for granted during the entire week.

--Just the quick history of our destination before we get too far into this: It's called the 'Lost City' because it wasn't discovered for nearly 500 years after it was abandoned by the natives who inhabited it. When the Spaniards arrived to those parts of Colombia in the late 15th/early 16th century the trade routes for the natives in that area were cut off and they were forced to relocate, abandoning their home of nearly 1500 years. When it was re-discovered by local farmers in the mid 1970's it was in ruins and since then has been rebuilt according to what was known by archeologists about the ways and life of the natives in the area broadly referred to as Tayronas. About 15 years ago, organized treks of tourists, foreigners and backpackers like us started going out there with guides, taking on the 3 day out and 3 day back hike over the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. These days you will find covered sleeping areas and open fire pits or platforms and humble facilities at each of the night's camps, a luxury I doubt was enjoyed by early archeologists and hikers in the area.--

We arrived in Machete Pelado, the small town about 2 hours outside of Santa Marta where the trail to the Ciudad Perdida starts and we were off! Day 1 started warm but relatively flat and headed out along a river for about an hour and a half. Just when we thought we had found our rhythm, we reached an intimidating vertical switchback trail that continues for the next hour before leveling off. Another hour or so of smaller inclines and declines takes you to the sharp downgrade taking you into our camp, Adan, for the first night. During this part of the trip (also the last day) you pass by military camps (the Colombian army now patrols the entire trail from trailhead to the Lost City and within the Lost City as well), farm houses and even a school. That night we hung up our hammocks to relax thanks to one of the luxuries we were afforded-- someone to carry and cook our food (no easy feat considering the cooks always had to stay one step ahead of us and were usually the last to pack up, not to mention the loads they were carrying). We were able to take advantage of the swimming hole and waterfall before having to slather on the bug spray and rest up for the rest of the week.

Day 2 started bright and early. It took a little while for our bodies to get used to sleeping in a hammock but by the last day we were old pros. I'm pretty sure my back had a few harsh words for me under these sleeping conditions but they are actually quite comfortable once you can convince your feet that they are indeed supposed to be at the same level as your head. We headed out early to try to stay out of the heat with not too much luck. After experiencing quite the leg-burner the day before, we knew what to expect. We had seen a route map and we would be ascending and descending about 500 meters everyday and each day would be about 4 hours of intense hiking. Luckily the camp we reached on day 2, Gabriel, was even better than Adan. With a bigger swimming hole and more rocks to jump off of, it was a lot of fun. We got there with plenty of time to relax, kick off the shoes and just BE in the middle of the jungle.

That night, we had the chance to get to know our guide, Manuel a bit better. Manuel was an archeologist who used to work at the Ciudad Perdida before becoming a tour guide almost 15 years ago. Due to an accident while working at the Ciudad Perdida, he walks with a severe limp and was always happy to bring up the rear but was never too far behind us. Manuel explained to us that night why the military guarded the trail and some of his experiences working in the area. He told us about a trek he led 6 years ago when his group was attacked by guerrillas from the smaller of 2 groups in Colombia. (Read the full story of his account in the next entry A Disturbing Tale)[i]. Here is Manuel describing some of the pottery recovered from the Ciudad Perdida on our tour of the ruins.
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If there hadn't been enough instances at this point to call ourselves crazy, hearing this story from the sources would have triggered such a reaction. However, the tagline for this excursion was coined early on (maybe at the first of more than 20 river crossings or could have been a few minutes later standing on top of a mountain). I have to give Marty credit for the exclamation, but "This is nuckin' futs!" pretty much describes our week in the jungle.
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Day 3 was when we finally made it up to the Ciudad Perdida, after climbing over 1270 steps of varying shapes sizes and ages-- imagine spending about and hour and a half on the Stairmaster at the gym on level 8, about like that. It was well worth the climb. The place is gorgeous, lush, kind of eerie in the people-used-to-bury-their-dead-under-my-feet kind of way, but filled with amazing stories and history about the Indigenous Koguis (one of the tribes generally referred to as Tayronas) who made their lives there for nearly 1500 years. Manuel gave us the tour, describing the different circular platforms used for building huts, customs- men and women slept and ate in separate huts, showed us the ceremonial platforms- the big ones behind Marty and I in the picture, and walked us through the reconstructed ancient city.
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By day 4 the trek was officially half over but because overcrowding due to high season had made sitting/sleeping/eating space limited (something about 75 people crammed into a shelter for 45) we weren't upset by the departure. Marty and I were lucky enough to get a tent set up in the middle of one of the circles huts used to be built in instead of cramming into the sardine can of a sleeping platform. We were totally going native!

Day 5 and 6 we retraced our steps back the way we had come. Took the necessary swimming hole breaks, the last one cut short due to some vendetta of a fresh water crab against my foot.

As we walked back into Machete Pelado at the end of our last day we allowed ourselves a little reflection. We consider ourselves very lucky to be among those who have toughed it out to make it to the Ciudad Perdida and learn just a little more about the people who made our world what it is today. We gave ourselves a few pats on the back for not complaining (too much) about the literally countless mosquito bites and sore feet/legs/shoulder and said a little prayer of thanks for being with a guide and a group who were able to find the balance between doing their own thing and making the experience great for everyone else. I definitely have new respect for mountaineers and backpackers who goes days, weeks or months on the trail without seeing other people or civilization. I think I found my limits for things like that to be just about a week, maybe 2 if the conditions were right. Nevertheless, it was a much needed retreat and one that turned out to be refreshing and rewarding.

Posted by tuffchix 15:59 Archived in Colombia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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